A Blog Supreme?
American writer and poet laureate Amiri Baraka once remarked that jazz music is “essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made.” The same can be said of the burgeoning field of online scholarship. Many rearguard academics view online scholarship as a perversion or threat to conventional modes of scholarly production.
By contrast, those in the academic vanguard appreciate online scholarship, first and foremost, as an organic contribution to the world of ideas, and perhaps secondarily, if at all, as a commentary or critique of prevailing modes of scholarship. Although online scholarship takes shape within and against prevailing modes of scholarly production, it has developed, like jazz, into a distinctive idiom of intellectual engagement with its own cultural aesthetic, norms, and the like. And like jazz, it retains a certain mystery and mystique that proves compelling to proponents and confounding to its critics.
In this Essay, I relate the work of free and avant-garde jazz artists to the work of online legal scholars. I employ this jazz metaphor to advance a deeper understanding of online scholarship and its relationship to conventional modes of scholarship and the scholarly enterprise in general. This is not to suggest that all online scholars should aspire to be the John Coltrane of their field, or to perform as impressively as Coltrane did in his 1964 masterwork, A Love Supreme. Nor do I argue that traditional legal scholars are presumptive “squares” and “moldy figs” in comparison to the “hip” online scholars. Rather, I want to suggest that viewing online scholarship through the prism of the jazz experience helps us appreciate the perspective of many online scholars, the nature of online contributions, and the impact that online scholars hope to achieve upon the world of ideas. The jazz metaphor also sheds light on the manner in which online scholarship will be received in traditional academic circles in the years to come. Indeed, the uneasy acceptance of jazz (particularly the free and avant-garde idiom) by music traditionalists and the general public suggests that online scholarship will at best be understood as a compelling alternative mode of scholarly engagement that accents rather than displaces conventional forms of scholarly expression.
I. Freedom and Public Conversation
Jazz, in the words of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, expresses “the whole of human experience at the particular time that it is being expressed.” The inspirational sources of jazz include not only melodies, musical idioms, instrumentation, and technique, but also the full range of human experience, including contemporary issues of social, political, and economic life. “[T]he issues,” Coltrane explained, “are part of what is at this time. So naturally, as musicians, we express whatever is.” From the perspective of the jazz artist, the freedom of music expression provides the medium through which one “can create the initial thought patterns that change the thinking of the people.”
This freedom is not wholly unconstrained, however. Even the avant-garde and free-jazz cohort acknowledges that the freest of jazz composition remains disciplined by rules and musical conventions. Commenting on the work of free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, biographer Peter Wilson remarked that Coleman’s compositions remained “subjected throughout to a traditional beat . . . [that] harks back to jazz before bebop.” Wilson went on to note that, despite Coleman’s profoundly avant-garde nature, his work remained largely committed to “the received hierarchy of horns and rhythm section” as well as “the traditional sequence of theme-solos-theme.” Thus, Wilson concluded that “[t]he musical rules in Coleman’s music are so obvious and of so traditional a kind—whether they are now explicitly enforced or just intuitively followed—that the ‘free’ in ‘free jazz’ can only be understood in a limited, or relative, sense.” Put differently, even the most liberated of jazz expression remains firmly rooted in the tradition and cultural aesthetic of the collective jazz enterprise. As Wynton Marsalis so eloquently put it, “you have the question of the integrity, the intent, the will to play together—that’s what jazz music is.”
The online scholar is likewise firmly rooted in the tradition of legal scholarship. The online scholar who seeks to ignite serious public engagement of an idea is not unlike the jazz artist who, as Marsalis once commented, strives to “negotiate the greatest amount of personal freedom and put it humbly at the service of a group conception.” For the online scholar, however, that group conception is the scholarly enterprise—the serious intellectual engagement and robust exchange of scholarly ideas and perspectives. Like the jazz artist, the online scholar is freer than his traditional counterpart. The online scholar’s mode of production breaks free from the civilizing hand of the law review template—the distant, scholarly tone, meticulous section headings, compulsory reviews of all relevant scholarly literature, relentless footnoting, and the like. In its place, one finds the grist of public conversation—thoughts and ideas, in various stages of development, offered for the engagement, consumption, refutation, and critique of scholars and non-scholars alike.
Online scholarship’s free aesthetic appeals particularly to interdisciplinary legal scholars eager to engage issues of contemporary politics and public policy. For instance, our weblog contributors at BlackProf publish comments on a wide range of issues relating to race, culture, and society—from commentary on recently published scholarship to voting rights issues to the depiction of African Americans in popular culture.
But the freedom of online scholarship usually, but not always, remains anchored to the scholarly enterprise. Like a classically trained jazz musician, the online scholar relies upon her wealth of academic training, research, and insight to ground her online contribution. Our contributors at BlackProf draw upon their academic insight and experience to lend texture to public conversation on these topics, and it is their intellectual engagement that attracts readers to our site. BlackProf, of course, is not alone in this endeavor. Across the Internet, one can find sources of online scholarship, distinctive in form and content, that remain largely committed to advancing scholarly debate and providing a meaningful contribution to the world of ideas.
The weblogs’ foremost contribution is to make intellectual conversation public. Online scholars seek to project their ideas into the public domain for the express purpose of shaping prevailing public discourse. This is especially true of scholars whose work focuses on matters of public law or public policy. The ease and pace of online publication allows scholars to engage matters of public importance in real time and to enter public discourse on the ground level. In addition, the easy accessibility of online scholarship facilitates prompt retrieval, commentary, and formal and informal syndication by a multitude of individual readers, public and private institutions, and traditional and non-traditional media outlets. Timing and exposure are of paramount importance for the scholar who wishes not only to make a contribution to the world of ideas, but also to have the world respond in a meaningful way.
II. Audience Participation
The jazz experience is enhanced through dialogue between the musicians and the audience. Indeed, jazz musicians often improvise in real time in response to the audience’s shrieks, moans, and applause. When asked whether he had a preference for the kind of audience he played for, John Coltrane initially answered, “Well, to me, it doesn’t matter. I only hope that whoever is out there listening, they enjoy it; and if they’re not enjoying it, I’d rather they not be there.” When pressed, however, Coltrane confided, “Well, I guess I like an audience that does show what they feel; to respond.” He continued, “[T]he audience, in listening, is in an act of participation, you know. And when you know that somebody is maybe moved [by what you are playing], it’s just like having another member in the group.”
I suspect that most legal academics engaged in online scholarship share Coltrane’s sentiments. Legal scholarship rarely takes shape in isolation. Ideas are routinely vetted in faculty workshops and colloquia and are eventually subjected to peer review and editorial review prior to publication. Presentation and critique are essential components of the production of strong scholarship.
One of the great benefits of online scholarship is that one can obtain near-instantaneous feedback on an idea. In most instances, an engaging post will elicit a wide range of comments and criticisms from scholars and non-scholars alike. The most serious responses often lead to deep and sustained conversation that can shape and add texture to the original idea. Serious engagement with online contributions provides the legal academic with an additional forum in which to experiment and grow as a scholar. Just as the growth and development of the jazz artist proves vital to the evolution of the idiom, the maturation of a scholar and his ideas is of central importance to the research mandate and scholarly enterprise of most leading law schools. In this way, online scholarship provides crucial opportunities for individual and institutional academic growth.
III. The Futility of Labeling
Jazz musicians never seriously sought to blot out all other forms of music that had come before. Ornette Coleman’s free-jazz style was motivated by his desire to allow “[e]ach player [to be] free to contribute what he feels in the music at any given moment.” John Coltrane’s controversial transition from bebop to avant-garde was motivated by his conscious attempt to improve things he discovered in music. “I’ve tried to say,” remarked Coltrane, “Well this I feel, could be better, in my opinion, so I will try to do this to make it better.” Although some jazz critics dispute the merit of free and avant-garde musicians, most concede that their efforts were motivated out of a desire to evolve rather than destroy.
The same is true of online scholarship. Most online scholars, like their jazz counterparts, do not wish to displace traditional scholarship. Online contributions are perhaps best understood as part of the overall scholarly enterprise that each of us undertakes, and in my view, pose no threat to the production of careful and sustained scholarly research.
Of course, the proliferation of online scholarship does raise important questions about how academic institutions should measure and reward online contributions. This may mean reopening the age-old debate over “what constitutes scholarship?” and the critical reassessment of criteria for judging good scholarship. Academic institutions may find themselves in the new and challenging position of evaluating online contributions for purposes of merit increases, tenure consideration, and research credit. Student-edited law reviews and peer-reviewed journals may seek to emulate the style and substance of online scholarship—either as a reactive effort to counteract perceptions of increasing irrelevancy or as an affirmative attempt to keep pace with changes in scholarly production.
The dispute over how online scholarship should be received mimics in many ways the uneasy reception of jazz in the early- and mid-twentieth century. Jazz music was deeply controversial at its inception. Indeed, a number of critics argued that jazz was not music at all, let alone worthy of celebration and acknowledgment by traditionalists—a viewpoint underscored most dramatically in 1965 when officials for the Pulitzer Prize in music famously snubbed jazz’s elder statesman Duke Ellington at the same time that his accomplishments were being celebrated throughout the world.
Of course, most jazz musicians disagreed with this assessment regarding the merits of jazz. Indeed, many rejected the label “jazz” itself, and referred to jazz as “classical music.” As John Coltrane once explained,
The term “classical music,” in my opinion, means the music of a country that is played by the composers and musicians of the country, as opposed to the music that the people dance to or sing, the popular music. So in other words, there are classical musics all over the world—different types of classical music. So if you want to name [my music] anything, you could name it a “classical music.”
Today, no one seriously objects to the classification of jazz as a musical form. There remains, however, substantial disagreement within jazz circles as to whether music forms that purport to be jazz are jazz as such. Jazz is a pluralistic association of different voices that come together for public conversation—a conversation premised upon the idea of communal artistic exchange. Beneath the creative vision and technical mastery lies a shared belief in the principle of humanity for the true jazz ensemble. Going through the motions of sound production without sincere engagement in the human condition may produce music, but that music will not be jazz.
A similar tension runs through online legal scholarship. Despite the rapid growth of online scholarship, scholars and academic institutions continue to debate the essential question of whether online contributions constitute scholarship. Even among those who look favorably upon online scholarship, there remains substantial disagreement as to whether all online contributions—even those that replicate features of conventional scholarship—are properly labeled as scholarship.
The objection that certain online contributions are not scholarly enough bears more than a passing resemblance to the criticisms occasionally leveled at scholarly contributions in critical legal studies, critical race theory, feminist legal theory, queer theory, and the like. In many instances, such criticisms can be quickly identified as xenophobic and ideological attitudes masquerading as merit objections.
There is little doubt that legal scholars can advance scholarly debate through myriad forms of blogging—despite the brevity, informal tone, and humor found in most posts. But there remains a nagging sense that such contributions are not serious enough, derived in part from the fact that a non-trivial number of posts are merely superficial commentary about politics, news, and pop culture.
In many ways, the assessment of the scholarly nature of online contributions and concomitant labeling of “scholarship” exudes the profound sense of relativism captured in Duke Ellington’s famous quote, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that scholars—traditional and online—will continue to strive to produce the best contributions possible, and that individuals and institutions will continue to make their best efforts to acknowledge and appreciate good scholarship regardless of the form in which it appears.
IV. Online Scholarship as Culture and Movement
Online scholarship has moved beyond fashion to become a bona fide movement within the academy. Much like the global expansion of jazz in the early twentieth century that cut against the grain of conventional understandings of classical music, the expanded presence of online scholarship will undoubtedly continue to elicit reactions ranging from horror to ambivalence to fascination in the years to come. But like jazz, online scholarship is perhaps best understood as a creative and constructive effort to engage the scholarly enterprise on new and innovative terms. It would be a mistake to interpret the effort to expand the range of possibilities, whether in scholarship or music, as an attempt to destroy all that has come before it. John Coltrane was fond of describing his music as a “force for good”, where “good” is defined as making an organic artistic contribution to the world of jazz music. If the “good” of scholarship is to promote serious discourse on matters of public importance, then Coltrane may have struck the right note.
Christopher Alan Bracey is an Associate Professor of Law and Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also a Regular Contributor and co-Administrator of www.BlackProf.com, one of the most widely read legal weblogs and the preeminent African American academic weblog on the Internet.
Preferred Citation: Christopher A. Bracey, A Blog Supreme?, 116 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 13 (2006), http://yalelawjournal.org/forum/a-blog-supreme.